New study shows how advanced technology farming can provide environmental and financial benefits.
Despite being the world’s oldest profession—all jokes aside—farming has come a long way since mankind stopped foraging and formed agricultural communities, to nowadays when it feeds nations.
Although the technology of farming has changed dramatically over the millennia, there’s always room for improvement. The Association of Equipment Manufacturers (AEM) recently completed a study that showed that the use of modern technology, such as precision agriculture, can allow crop farmers to make significant gains in ecological sustainability and save money and resources along the way.
According to the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), there are three pillars of sustainability for the agriculture industry: 1) reduced environmental impact; 2) increased productivity and yield, and; 3) a better overall economic result.
While easy enough in its scope, it doesn’t work in the farmer’s favour unless all three elements are met.
Said Curt Blades, AEM Senior Vice President of Ag Services, “If a farmer is going to change a practice or invest in a new technology, the economic impact of that action has to be part of the conversation. Fortunately, we now have some rather compelling research that makes it a big part of the conversation.”
The AEM worked alongside the American Soybean Association, CropLife America, and the National Corn Growers Association to determine how it could better-align with the three USDA sustainability pillars.
The study looked at six areas of the crop farming industry where precision agriculture can impact environmentally and economically: productivity and crop yield; fertilizer use; herbicide use; fossil fuel use; water use, and; carbon emissions.
It also examined five areas where precision agriculture can make an impact: auto guidance; machine section control; variable rate; fleet analytics (telematics), and; precision irrigation.
“Farmers are the original stewards of the land and have been doing good things for a long time. Technology now affords farmers the ability to do even more—things that could never have happened before,” Blades stated.
The study’s goal was to determine how precision ag technologies can impact productivity, fertilizer and herbicide application, fossil fuel usage, and water use.
Outstanding In Their Field
The AEM study examined various crop types across the United States and determined that by utilizing precision agriculture technologies, crop farmers can successfully do more with less. Presumably, these technologies would show similar results for farmers in Canada.
Farmers utilizing precision agriculture technologies gained a:
• 4 percent increase in crop production
• 7 percent reduction in fertilizer usage
• 9 percent reduction in herbicide application
• 6 percent reduction in fossil fuel required
• 4 percent reduction in water use (in western Canada this could be significant)
It's a win-win for both the environment and the farmers’ bottom line.
“That’s six percent less fuel (used) on a tractor that is likely running 20 hours a day for a couple of weeks straight,” Blades explained. “That isn’t just real money helping the farmer save thousands of dollars in fuel expenses, but (it) has the carbon reduction benefits of taking nearly 200,000 cars off the road.”
Nick Tindall, AEM Senior Director of Regulatory Affairs and Ag Policy said that the same applies to the use of fertilizer, herbicides, water use and crop protection.
More Would Be Better
While the results shown from the study are a great start, the AEM noted that if more crop farmers adopted precision agriculture technologies, even more gains could be realized.
Current precision agriculture technology adoption rates in the United States vary widely by sector, from less than 10 percent up to about 60 percent. However, if there was an adoption rate of 90 percent, the study postulated that there would be even greater benefits:
• 6 percent increase in crop production
• 14 percent reduction in fertilizer use
• 15 percent reduction in herbicide required
• 16 percent reduction in fossil fuel spent
• 21 percent reduction in water needed
At the current level, precision agriculture technologies have resulted in approximately 30 million pounds (13.6 million kilograms) of herbicide not being applied—but with the broader adoption, another 48 million pounds (28.8 million kilograms) could be saved in the United States.
“Precision agriculture has been talked about for many years,” said Blades. “Any kind of technology adoption must have a compelling reason for the person adopting it. Precision agriculture began making serious inroads when machine guidance and auto-steer came along. Those were technologies that made it easier for farmers to see the benefits.”
Technology waits for no one, but over the past 20 years there has been a steady increase in its usage within the crop farming sector. “Precision agriculture has become almost ubiquitous for anyone trying to derive income from their land,” said Blades. “Most equipment today has some sort of this technology. That in and of itself leads to broader adoption.”
Tindall agreed, “Seeing the gains that are inherent with more widespread adoption isn’t just a matter of convincing more farmers to adopt P.A. technology. It is also about the continued refinement of these technologies. For instance, auto-steer has been around since the 1990s, but it is far better today than it was back then.”
The blowback against more farmers taking advantage of the technologies, of course, is that farmers need to have the money to first invest in it.
And then there’s the issue of the rural landscape simply not having the required infrastructure for the technology to be applied. If you want the GPS to work effectively, for example, a more resolute internet provision must be in place.
THE COMPETITIVE EDGE
While the study does show that precision agriculture technology can provide a noticeable difference to the individual farm, both Blades and Tindall agreed that technology is also about evolving the agricultural industry to become even more productive, sustainable and competitive.
“It is a global market now,” Tindall said. “If today's American farmer wants to continue thriving, it's important to become more efficient. Technology plays directly into that. Precision agriculture technology that delivers both an environmental and economic benefit helps a farmer become more competitive in the international market. Plus, with a strong sustainability message, it helps a farmer maintain access to certain markets.
“Being able to leverage these technologies to sustainably and affordably provide people with quality food is a win for everybody.”
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